There’s one especially important trait I look for in great team members: intellectual honesty. Many other traits typically follow suit, but lacking this foundation can lead to frequent Kobayashi Maru situations. At best, those slow down the team without adding value, and at worst, turn an entire team toxic and ruin its core cultural values. And it can happen quickly.
The best engineers and leaders I’ve worked with have an insatiable curiosity for how things work, a desire to discover how to do things better, and fundamentally understand that careers are about a lifetime of learning. If you don’t know something, it’s an opportunity to learn, not cover up the fact you don’t know. Everybody has missing information. It’s impossible to hold the world of knowledge in a single person’s head (at least with today’s technologies). The best leaders know this, and ask endless streams of insightful questions.
The worst engineers and leaders, on the other hand, fake it, or worse, actively avoid the truth. They feel insecure and enter into a campaign of systemic intellectual dishonesty. I’m sure you’ve worked with at least one person like this over the course of your career. I’ve never been sure if people like this do it consciously. Probably it’s some inherent instict that kicks in. But whatever it is, you’ve got to train yourself – and your team – to never go down this path, and to catch and squash this bad behavior ruthlessly.
Maybe this sounds abstract. Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation. In a design review, someone asks an uncomfortable question. It’s uncomfortable because it reveals a flaw in the design. How does the team react? How do leaders react, and how do team members react? Hopefully they react by asking more questions and exploring the intricacies of the flaw.
Imagine an alternative reaction. Someone plays misdirection, tossing out smoke bombs that confuse the listener, exploiting their position of having thought long and hard about the area. I should hope they at least took note to go back to the drawing board when they feel on safer ground. Other common reactions are, “let’s take this offline” (when the person speaking neither has time nor interest in actually doing so). You can see it immediately: does the person take offense, act confused and flat-footed, and generally seem uncomfortable? If yes, beware. What comes next is about as bad as lying outright.
The reason this sucks is it breeds a culture where technical debate, discourse, and the pursuit of excellence isn’t the norm. People “game the system” and start playing politics, rather than letting technical innovation shine through. People with an innate ability to find flaws and help patch them are discouraged from participating, left frustrated and therefore under-utilized, and often end up leaving, despite them being an enormous competitive advantage to your company.
Unfortunately, I have a hard time forgiving intellectual dishonesty. As soon as I’ve caught someone doing this, I pretty much classify them in a certain bucket, and never treat them the same again. It sucks to admit this. Given enough examples of reform, I’ll reconsider, however in my experience, those who practice intellectual dishonesty are often lifetime offenders. It’s best to fire them as soon as you make this unfortunate realization about them.
In a nutshell, welcome technical debate and collaboration, all in the spirit of intellectual excellence. The collective product of your team’s labor will be way better as a result of it.